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Court reviewing Cottage Grove charter group's petition

A group aiming to change the way the city of Cottage Grove is governed has said it collected nearly 1,600 petition signatures, over 200 more than are needed to begin the legal process that could put a city charter before voters in a referendum.

Leon Moe, a Cottage Grove resident who has led a petition drive aimed at creating a home-rule charter -- essentially, a municipal constitution that lays out the extent of a city government's power -- to rein in the city's elected officials he and members of the group say they believe aren't listening to them.

Based on turnout in the last general election, a successful charter petition needs the signatures of roughly 1,350 registered Cottage Grove voters. Moe said the group, Cottage Grove Citizens Voice, submitted 1,580 signatures to the Washington County District Court. Now, the court and city of Cottage Grove will vet the pages-long list to certify the signatures.

Moe said the group's process leaves him confident the effort will move forward. Before submitting the petition to the court, he said the group compared the signatures it gathered to a state voter database and removed names that did not appear as registered.

"We just wanted to be sure that what we had was factual information," he said.

A Washington County judge has set no deadline for Cottage Grove officials to complete their review of the list of signatures, though City Administrator Ryan Schroeder said the city "doesn't intend to dawdle" in inspecting the list.

"We just want to make sure the persons on the petition are valid voters in the community so that we can ensure that the petition is in fact a valid petition," Schroeder said.

Moe said the organizers obtained most of the signatures simply by going door to door in Cottage Grove.

"We were pretty humbled by the community support," he said.

Charter commission

If the petition is certified a district court judge will appoint a commission to begin drawing up a proposed charter that would go before the public in an up-or-down referendum.

Moe said petition leaders have submitted a list of 11 names to be considered for the commission. City officials said they would submit the names of suggested charter commission members in the near future. The judge appoints members to the commission at their own discretion, according to state statute.

Currently, Cottage Grove -- like a vast majority of municipalities in the state -- is a statutory city, following and deriving its power from state statute. A charter would allow the city to insert more specific laws and regulations for how to govern the city; among the group's proposed charter measures are allowing voters to recall elected city officials, dividing the city into wards and forcing a citywide referendum on large expenditures.

The push for a city charter has been driven largely by a group of residents' frustration over the City Council's decision to build a new city hall and public safety building. They believe the public should have voted on the $16 million construction project and have been vocal in expressing their opposition.

That the makeup of the petition group closely mirrors that of the core opposition to the building project hasn't escaped the notice of project proponents like Mayor Myron Bailey, who says the charter effort is politically-motivated.

"It is a group that is upset about one piece of city government. It's political, I believe," Bailey said. "As more residents understand the ramifications of doing this, they're not [going to be] happy."

Not 'loose cannons'

The strategy in getting charter petition signatures was pretty simple, Moe said. Organizers didn't bombard potential supporters with lots of numbers.

Said Moe: "We just said, 'have you heard about the new city hall project? Did you know we were denied a vote on that project?'"

A majority of citizens they encountered were not aware of the project, Moe said.

Moe said there are many people who support the effort, particularly after a previous petition was circulated that would have forced a public referendum on an earlier funding proposal for the municipal building.

"It was not just a couple of loose cannons running around saying we're going to change city government," he said. "There was a significant number of people saying, 'Hey,' we were denied our right to vote on it and we're not happy.'"

Bailey has been critical of the group and its goals, but said recently he wasn't surprised the petition garnered enough signatures to move forward. The city will closely examine the list for irregularities, he said. But should it be certified, Bailey said, the city will respect the charter commission process.

"When it's all said and done, whatever the citizens say they want, we'll abide by it," Bailey said. "There's no circumventing, there's no reason to freak out."

He continued: "I don't think it's necessary, but if the citizens decide it's something we want then we'll have a charter. If they don't, we won't."